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Trempealeau County has 7th highest rate of virus cases in Wisconsin

Trempealeau County is experiencing one of the state’s highest rates of COVID-19 cases, and by far the highest rate in western Wisconsin, according to state data.

The county, with a population of just under 30,000, has a rate of 1,022.5 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people.

Its rate is far higher than Eau Claire and La Crosse counties — its larger neighbors that have both seen significant spikes in cases in June and July.

Eau Claire County’s rate of virus cases is 460 per 100,000 people, and La Crosse County’s is 669, according to state data.

Only six other Wisconsin counties have per capita COVID-19 rates higher than Trempealeau County — Iron, Brown, Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties.

Two Trempealeau County residents have died of the virus, and 305 had contracted it as of Friday.

In comparison, Eau Claire County — with a population more than three times as large as Trempealeau County — had three deaths and 474 total cases as of Friday.

Big gatherings and few wearing masks are likely partially to blame for Trempealeau County’s prevalence of coronavirus cases, said Kaila Baer, the county health department’s COVID-19 public information officer.

“We’re seeing a lot of people going against our recommendations with their gatherings,” Baer said.

For the past several weeks, Baer has warned that the county is on the edge of moving to a severe-risk designation — up from the high-risk label that most Wisconsin counties have per the state Department of Health Services.

Baer cited large sporting events, graduation parties, “socially distanced” weddings in the county, combined with a lack of mask-wearing: “All these types of things, just by nature of them, you tend to not physically distance the entire time.”

Health officials believe that half of the county’s cases don’t know where they got the virus, a statistic that concerns Baer.

“It’s definitely higher than we’d like to be,” she said. “It would be much better if people were getting it directly from someone else they know they were in contact with. Those people are quarantined, and if they test positive, they have fewer contacts.”

Almost half of the county’s cases, 46%, are found in Arcadia, the county’s largest city.

That wasn’t a surprise to county health officials. Some of the area’s largest employers are centered in Arcadia, Baer said, which draws many employees who commute from surrounding counties.

While the county has been “working really hard to provide our materials in Spanish and to reach out” to Arcadia’s Hispanic and Latino residents — the Health Department posts daily updates on its Facebook page in both Spanish and English — “sometimes the language barrier makes it a little more difficult,” Baer said. The city has a large Hispanic and Latino population; 72% of children enrolled in the Arcadia School District in September 2019 were Hispanic, according to Wisconsin DPI data.

On July 16, the county saw its first death; the resident was hospitalized at the time, but the health department declined to release the person’s age or medical history, citing medical privacy reasons.

A low death rate brings some good news for the county. As of July 23, six residents had been hospitalized with the virus, Baer said, just 2% of the county’s total cases — far lower than the state’s 9% hospitalization average.

Young people are likely driving the virus’ spread, she noted.

Just over 52% of the county’s cases are in young adults between 20 and 39 years old, according to county data. It mirrors a regional and statewide trend.

“That’s telling me that it’s spreading among people who are engaging in riskier activities,” Baer said.

The county’s health department is recommending people don’t gather in groups over 15 when they’re indoors, and over 50 when they’re outdoors.

Baer also urged people to wear masks and not to gather in large groups.

The county is attempting to turn around the case trend with a new initiative aimed at local businesses’ safety practices.

“We do have a (state) toolkit already … but it hasn’t been enough. I really do think we can level off our case rate by getting businesses on board and helping our residents see how important this is,” Baer said.

On the road to freedom

Before the late congressman John Lewis coined the phrase “good trouble,” he and Jim Zwerg, a former Eau Claire resident, lived it out. I first learned of this local connection to the larger civil rights story a few years back, while writing a book on the Freedom Riders.

How on a cool February night in 1961, 20-year-old Zwerg first met 19-year-old Lewis outside a movie theater in Nashville. Zwerg, a white college student originally from Appleton, had recently enrolled in Nashville’s Fisk University — a historically Black school — as part of an exchange program. Prior to his arrival in Nashville, Zwerg’s interactions with Black folks had been limited.

“All through high school I didn’t know anyone with a different ethnic background,” Zwerg shared with me in a 2015 interview. “It wasn’t until my freshman year (at Beloit College), when I had a Black roommate, that I saw firsthand prejudice and discrimination.”

That school year, Zwerg overheard racist remarks whispered behind his roommate’s back, and noted, too, how the local barber refused to cut his roommate’s hair. After witnessing injustice up close, Zwerg’s commitment to social justice grew.

Two and a half years later, his commitment led him to the exchange program in Nashville, where the civil rights movement was already in full swing.

On that cool February night, Zwerg watched from across the street as a dozen demonstrators protested a segregated movie theater.

“All were nicely dressed,” Zwerg recalled. “The guys were all in suits and ties, and the girls were all in dresses. But they just stood there. They didn’t have placards, they weren’t singing any freedom songs, they weren’t trying to get any tickets. They just stood there …”

Zwerg was baffled by the seemingly low-key approach to the protest. Where were the signs, the songs, the chants? Weren’t protests supposed to be more attention-grabbing?

Zwerg approached one of the demonstrators to share his observations.

“You need to talk to our spokesman,” the demonstrator said. “And he’s up front.”

Weaving past the others, Zwerg eventually came face-to-face with Lewis, a man with whom he’d soon share a destiny. But in that moment, they were still just two strangers on the Nashville street.

Zwerg introduced himself and expressed his interest in getting involved with the movement. Lewis studied the lanky, white Wisconsinite, then said, “This demonstration is almost ending, but if you want to follow us back to the church, I’d be happy to talk to you.”

Zwerg agreed.

It was a decision that changed his life forever.

• • •

Three months later, on the morning of May 20, 1961, Zwerg and Lewis shared a bus seat from Birmingham to Montgomery. But this wasn’t just any bus ride; it was a Freedom Ride — one of many throughout the summer of 1961. The Freedom Riders’ mission: to test the enforcement of a pair of Supreme Court rulings that confirmed the unconstitutionality of segregation in interstate travel.

Two weeks earlier, on May 4, Freedom Rider buses had been attacked in Anniston and Birmingham, and while all the riders survived, many were severely injured. Some were hospitalized after enduring a beating at the hands of a mob, others nearly dying of smoke inhalation while trapped on a fire-bombed bus.

Yet the members of the Nashville Student Movement, Zwerg and Lewis among them, refused to be turned away by violence.

“If not us, then who,” Lewis famously remarked. “If not now, then when?”

After an uneventful ride (in part, thanks to a state highway patrol escort), the bus pulled into the Montgomery Greyhound station. No sooner had the bus come to a stop when Lewis, just waking from his nap, noticed an eerie silence had developed, and turning to Zwerg, whispered, “That’s not good.”

The riders disembarked, and just as Lewis approached a press conference microphone, the mob suddenly emerged. They spilled from the shadows between buildings, 200 or so white men armed with baseball bats and iron pipes. Zwerg and Lewis found themselves cornered, and as the mob closed in, Zwerg fell to his knees and prayed. Lewis watched, horrified, as Zwerg endured blow after blow and collapsed to the pavement.

“(Lewis) had one final thought,” journalist David Halberstam wrote, “and it was that the last thing he was going to see in his life was Jim Zwerg being murdered.”

Zwerg survived, though he suffered a severe concussion, several cracked vertebrae and internal abdomen injuries.

Lewis, too, took a beating.

“Someone grabbed my briefcase, which I’d been holding in my right hand since stepping off the bus,” Lewis recounted in his memoir. “I pulled back but it was ripped from my fingers. At that instant I felt a thud against my head. I could feel my knees collapse and then nothing.”

He’d been struck by a wooden Coca-Cola crate, rendering him unconscious.

When both Zwerg and Lewis regained consciousness, they stood alongside one another near the bus station’s brick wall, Lewis gazing out at the aftermath of the moment, while Zwerg stares at Lewis, his index finger pressed into his mouth to examine a tooth. Both men’s suits were blood-spattered.

A photograph of this precise moment has been ingrained in America’s consciousness. Years later, Lewis wrote that this photo — much like the photos of the Freedom Rider’s burning bus in Anniston and those documenting 1963’s Children Crusade in Birmingham “became timeless.”

“They went out in the world,” Lewis remarked, “and no one who saw them would ever forget them.”

Our inability to forget such drama-filled photos — and in particular, white people’s inability to forget — shifted the civil rights movement from a “southern problem” to a national one. Moreover, the bloodied photograph of Zwerg and Lewis made it clear that all Americans were at the mercy of violent segregationists.

Though their paths would diverge, Jim Zwerg and John Lewis would stay in touch over the years. Lewis ran for political office and, from 1987 to his recent death in July, served as the congressman for Georgia’s fifth district. Zwerg, meanwhile, became a minister and was called to serve in churches throughout Wisconsin, including a three-year stint as associate pastor at Eau Claire’s First Congregational Church from 1968-1971.

“That was a very meaningful experience for all involved,” Zwerg said. “Eau Claire had such wonderfully, wonderfully warm people and they were very accepting”

Yet in 1971 Zwerg and his family were called to a church in Tucson. He was pleased with his work in Eau Claire, but felt it was time to head a church of his own. Plus, he conceded, he was “getting a little tired of the cold.”

In 2015, Zwerg and Lewis reunited at Lawrence University in Appleton, where both men received honorary degrees. In his commencement address, Lewis reminded students, “We are one people, we are one family, we are one house. We are brothers and sisters.”

Lewis employed similar language in his memoir, noting that throughout the movement, Black and white people became “brothers and sisters” in their shared fight for social justice.

“We bled together. We suffered together,” Lewis said.

It’s hard to trace the precise convergence of events that brought a young, white Wisconsinite and a young, Black Alabamian together on a bus seat all those years ago. But by sitting together, suffering together, and continuing the fight nonetheless, Zwerg and Lewis demonstrated to the nation what the future of the civil rights movement might look like: one rooted in allyship, shared sacrifice, and checking one’s privilege in the service of progress.

Today, we mourn the loss of Congressman John Lewis, though we should celebrate, too, all he’s left behind: a blueprint for a better world, and an invitation for each of us to stand tall by taking our seat alongside him. To make “good trouble” wherever we can — from Alabama to Wisconsin and beyond.

Wisconsin Republicans 'stand ready' to kill mask requirement

MADISON — Wisconsin Senate Republicans “stand ready” to strike down the statewide mask mandate that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers announced on Thursday, the GOP Senate leader said Friday.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald stopped short of promising that the Senate would vote to kill the order, which is slated to take effect today. Fitzgerald, a candidate for Congress who faces a GOP primary on Aug. 11, also did not indicate when the Senate might convene.

“Republicans in the state Senate stand ready to convene the body to end the governor’s order,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “The governor has caved to the pressure of liberal groups on this. How can we trust that the he won’t cave again and stop schools that choose in-person instruction this fall? There are bigger issues at play here, and my caucus members stand ready to fight back.”

State law gives the Legislature authority to revoke a governor’s emergency order. But the Assembly, controlled by Republicans, would also have to vote to strike down the order. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on Thursday noted that he expects the order to face a legal challenge, but didn’t raise the possibility of the Legislature taking action. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

The GOP-controlled Legislature has not met since mid-April, despite calls from Evers and Democrats to convene to take up issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, including ensuring that the Wisconsin National Guard can continue its work across the state assisting in testing for COVID-19.

A message left with Fitzgerald’s office for further comment was not immediately returned. Evers’ spokeswoman Britt Cudaback referred to comments he made on Thursday calling it “risky business” for the Legislature to revoke a mask mandate that polls show has broad public support.

Evers declared a public health emergency on Thursday and issued a separate order requiring masks to be worn, with some exceptions, by everyone age 5 and up while inside or in enclosed places. The order does not apply to people in their private homes. It was slated to run until Sept. 28, with violators facing a $200 fine.

As of Friday, more than a dozen county sheriffs across Wisconsin said they would not enforce the order, with many noting they didn’t have the resources to deal with it or that it was a public health issue instead of a law enforcement matter.

More than 30 states, with both Republican and Democratic governors, have mask mandates in effect. Public health officials around the world have emphasized that wearing a mask is one of the best ways to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus.

Wisconsin has had nearly 53,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 934 deaths from the disease since the pandemic started. That death count is the 28th-highest in the country and the 35th highest per capita, at nearly 16 deaths per 100,000 people. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has gone up by 70, an increase of nearly 9%.